August 15, 2013

Admissions Board

             This is going to be one of those posts that sounds a bit harsh at first, but hopefully you’ll stick through ‘till the end before posting those angry responses.  If you’re feeling a bit thin-skinned, maybe you should come back next week.
            Writing is tough.  It’s hard work.  I know this, because I do it for a living.  When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out that they’re probably doing something wrong.
            Instead, I bite my tongue and scribble notes for a ranty blog post or two.
            There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun.  To be blunt, that was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously.  My plots were either contrived or derivative (some might say that hasn’t changed).  My characterization was weak and my motives were… well, whatever they needed to be at the moment to make that weak plot move along.  I rarely edited. 
            Perhaps most important of all… I thought I was a literary genius.  My stories didn’t just deserve Stokers and Hugos, mind you.  Once I got around to finishing them and sending them out, they were going to get Pulitzers and Nobels.
            Needless to say, my writing made huge leaps when I was able to admit a few things to myself.  I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
            That being said…
My writing sucks—This sounds harsh, yeah, but it needs to be.  Too many beginning writers just can’t get past the idea that something they wrote isn’t good.  I know I couldn’t.  It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time.  Why would I write something I couldn’t sell?  Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
            The problem here is the learning curve.  None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts.  Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics… and writers.  Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it. 
            You noticed I said “us,” right?  Lots of people think of Ex-Heroes as my first novel, but it wasn’t.  There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two versions), a God-awful sci-fi novel called A Piece of Eternity, some Star Wars and Doctor Who fan fic, a puberty-fuelled fantasy novel (which I haven’t admitted to in twenty years or so), The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth… and thenEx-Heroes.  And I can tell you without question that most of those really sucked.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t try to sell some of them (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I couldn’t improve as a writer until I accepted that I needed to improve.
My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I would fret over my writing.  I’d spend time laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph.  I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things.  It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
            The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck, and that’s okay.  Everyone’s first draft sucks.  Everyone has to go back and rework stuff.  It’s the nature of the beast.  With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft, and a third draft, and maybe even a sale.
My writing needs editing.  Lots of editing—So, as I just mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while.  Arguably thirty-five years.  Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes?  I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?
            Alas, no.  We all take the easy path now and then.  We all have things slip past us.  We all misjudge how some things are going to be read.  And I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.
            Also, as I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms.  I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft. 
            Which, as I also mentioned above, sucks.
My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect.  It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut.  When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everythingneeded to be there.  It was all part of the story.  Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the in-jokes and clever references.
            The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things need to be cut.  I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as you admit it in later drafts.  I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex.  It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book.  It had to be done.  Heck, with one of my more recent ones, 14, I needed to cut over 20,000 words.  That’s a hundred pages in standard manuscript format.  All cut.
My writing is going to be rejected –You know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have?  Rejection letters.  Actual paper letters that were mailed to me by editors.  I’ve got lots of them.  Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone.  And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines.
            But when that first one came from Jim Shooter at Marvel… I was crushed.  Devastated.  How could he not like my story?  It was a full page!  It was typed!  I even included a rendering of a cover suggestion in brilliant colored pencil.  It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then he shot that one down, too.
            Granted, I was about eleven, and those stories were really awful.  But even good stuff gets rejected.  Heck, even with the list of credits I’ve got now, the last two short stories I sent out were rejected.  Editors and publishers are people too, and not everything is going to appeal to everyone.  I came to accept being rejected once I realized it wasn’t some personal attack (okay, once it was…), just a person who didn’t connect with my story for some reason.
            And, sometimes, because my stories sucked.
            If I can admit some of these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer.  It’s not a flaw or a weakness.  In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but I don’t…,” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
            And that won’t get me anywhere.
            Next time, I’d like to say a few clever words about saying the word said.
            Until then, go write.
March 6, 2009 / 1 Comment

Third is the Prestige

If you haven’t seen the film I titled this week’s rant after, go see it now. Phenomenal movie by Christopher Nolan, the guy who did The Dark Knight, based off the book by Christopher Priest. Hop over to Netflix and rearrange the queue. If nothing else, go over to Jurassic Punk and download the trailer. The film is fantastic, but the trailer actually gives us everything I want to talk about this week.

A common term that gets thrown around in Hollywood is three-act structure. To be honest, it gets used a lot by people who don’t know much about storytelling, and they often try to pin this structure down to a rigid, unyielding formula (which tends to result in rigid, unyielding films). We have this structure in prose fiction, too, where we call it establishing the norm, introducing conflict, followed by resolution. Even in a magic trick, there’s the pledge, the turn, and the prestige (as explained by Michael Caine in the above-mentioned trailer).

At its simplest, any sort of storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be more exact, every story needs these three stages. Not just in terms of page count, but in the way it develops. If your story’s done right, any audience member can tell you almost exactly when and where these parts begin and end.

On the other hand, a story that doesn’t have these three parts has a sort of… meandering quality to it. Characters fall into inaction, or they leap into full-tilt action that doesn’t seem to have any purpose to it. They run or drive aimlessly, or sometimes we get to see them repeat the same actions two or thee times.

This generally comes from writers only having one or two parts of a story. Maybe they had a great opening and a cool middle, but didn’t know how to end it. Or they came up with a cool opening and a clever end, but never figured out how those points connect. I’ve even seen a few folks write a very cool opening… and nothing else. There was a great set up and then the story sort of spiraled off into… nowhere.

Here’s a great little way to look at this rule of thumb. Jim Shooter, who was Editor-in-Chief at Marvel Comics back in the day, had a wonderful example of the perfect story– the old nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffett.” It’s got all the parts of a great literary classic. Now, drag your minds out of the gutter and follow along…

Little Miss Muffett sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey.

This is our beginning. We’ve introduced character, location, and action. This is also called establishing the norm. Were nothing else to happen in our story, Miss Muffett would probably just sit there all day eating spoonful after spoonful. Maybe once the sun went down she’d go home and watch the fight on pay-per-view or something, but odds are this probably would’ve been a day like any other for her.

Along came a spider, which sat down beside her.

This is the middle of our story—the second act if you will. Now we’ve got an adversary, and a set of actions which produce conflict between the adversary and our protagonist (most tuffets are only built for one, after all). Something has happened which is not part of Muffy the curd-and-whey-slayer’s normal day, and it’s going to make things change.

And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The end of the tale. The conflict has come to an end and the story has a resolution, even if it’s just Muffy lifting the hem of her dress and sprinting away. It’s not the longest third act on record, but there it is.

If you don’t want to admit you know nursery tales, look at The Matrix. The beginning is Neo in his normal life as he goes to clubs and tries to avoid agents. The middle is him waking up in “the real world,” learning new skills, and going to meet the Oracle. The end is him taking on the figurehead role they’re prepared him for (even though he’s not sure he’s ready for it) and going to rescue Morpheus. These aren’t beats I’ve selected at random or for timing reasons—they’re moments in the film when the audience immediately knows we’ve moved to a next major section of the story and in Neo’s growth as a character.

Now, there are a few little caveats to this, of course. Despite what many gurus say, three act structure is not some ironclad, unchanging rule. Many stories start in the middle and take a bit before they go back and explain the beginning. “Coming in at the action,” some folks like to call it (we talked about this a few months back in regards to horror stories). A Princess of Mars, the classic sci-fi novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, actually begins at the very end of the tale, in the denouement, with the author inheriting a strange manuscript from his recently deceased uncle, John Carter.

All of this is fine, and there’s a great literary precedent for it. Some of my favorite stories work this way, in fact. What aspiring writers need to remember, though, that all these stories still have a beginning, middle, and end, even if they’ve been juggled around a bit in their tellings. The events have a definitive starting point. The characters have a baseline the audience sees them at. There’s a progression brought about by conflict and changes resulting from the conflict. And it all leads to a definitive conclusion.

(As a minor aside, this is why ending any story with “to be continued” immediately causes you to lose fifteen or twenty credibility points. It just means the writer hasn’t bothered with an actual ending.)

That leads us to the one question some of you have probably been wondering about since I started this little rant. Why do we need all this? What’s so important about these three parts?

They’re important because a beginning, middle, and end gives us character growth, and as I’ve said more than two or three times, good writing is about good characters. We need to see who they start off as, what changes them, and how the change affects them in the long run. Miss Muffet starts the day with her usual breakfast, but ends it fleeing in terror, probably never to return to her favorite tuffet again. Perhaps she’ll have some emotional scars and never be able to eat curds and whey again without being reminded of this terrible event. Whatever happens, we know it’s a real response that grew out of her experiences. Which makes her a memorable character.

After all, Miss Muffet’s story has been around for about four hundred years. We should all be so lucky.

So, next week, we’re going to play detective. No, it’s not like playing doctor, you perverts. We’re just going to talk a lot about motives and alibis, and how you always need them in your writing.

Speaking of which… get back to that writing, why don’t you?